Noah Hawley’s brilliant anthology series Fargo has, like the Coen brothers film that inspired it, provided wonderfully strong roles for women: Kirsten Dunst, Carrie Coon and, most notable of all, Allison Tolman in the first season in 2015.
Tolman, an unknown at the time with no more than a handful of small roles on TV to her name, played the aptly named Molly Solverson, an unassuming but smart deputy who outshines her patronising idiot of a boss (Bob Odenkirk) and cracks a knotty case wide open.
Sharing the screen with such seasoned performers as Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton and Keith Carradine, Tolman sparkled in a breakout performance.
I remember writing at the time that we were witnessing the birth of a new star. Tolman has worked steadily in films and television in the intervening years, but — despite rave reviews and Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for Fargo — has been wasted in guest appearances or recurring supporting roles.
So it’s great to see her taking the lead again in Fox’s new series Emergence, even if the similarities to her Fargo character are hard to ignore. Tolman is back in uniform, and back in a small-town setting, as Jo Evans, the police chief of a Long Island community.
Jo could be Molly, only a little older and wiser, with a daughter (Ashley Aufderheide) and an ex-husband (Alex Faison), from whom she’s newly divorced.
Like Molly, Jo also has a father (Clancy Brown) who lives with her. He’s a former firefighter and a September 11 first-responder who’s suffering from cancer. The Fargo similarities end there, but Emergence shares an even stronger DNA with series such as Lost, Stranger Things and especially last year’s swiftly cancelled The Passage.
It’s a mystery-thriller with supernatural and science fiction elements, and features what’s becoming a familiar trope: the mysterious child with strange powers.
Following a series of unexplained electrical disturbances and power outages, a small private plane crashes on the beach. At the crash site, Jo finds a frightened 10-year-old girl (Alexa Swinton) in the dunes. It appears she was on board the plane, yet she’s completely unhurt and has no memory of who she is or where she came from.
Jo takes her to hospital. Some shady-looking dudes turn up in the regulation black SUVs (the bad guys’ vehicle of choice), claiming to be agents of the National Transportation Security Board (NTSB) and looking to take the girl away with them.
Jo smells a rat and sends them packing. She decides to take the child to her own home, where the girl quickly bonds with her daughter Mia, and they give her the temporary name Piper.
Also sniffing around is a British investigative journalist called Benny Gallagher (Welsh actor Owain Yeoman from The Mentalist), who seems to know a lot more about what’s going on than he’s telling.
The following day, a couple called the Martins turn up at the police station, claiming the girl is their daughter Olivia, who went missing during the family camping holiday. Once again, Jo is suspicious and stalls them while she checks out the fingerprints they left on coffee cups. The power goes off again and when the lights come back on, the Martins have disappeared.
The NTSB claim the plane was an unmanned drone, but Gallagher insists the black box and human remains were hastily removed.
More paranoid than ever, Jo insists her family and Piper hide out in their holiday home. But the Martins follow them. When the lights go off yet again, they abduct Piper. Jo gives chase, the Martins’ car flips violently, killing them both but leaving Piper, once again, without a scratch.
A final scene offering several possible explanations of who (or what) Piper might be is intriguing enough to pull you back for more. Supernatural thrillers have a poor strike rate on US TV, but Emergence deserves a shot, not least for Tolman’s excellent, thoughtful performance.